Boris Johnson (“BoJo”) has been a chancer all his adult life.
A privileged upbringing has given him a sense of entitlement and an accompanying carapace of invulnerability– a combination which allows him to take risks without forethought as to their likely outcomes. After all, as his nanny did when he was very young, there will always be someone around him to pick-up the pieces.
For BoJo, life as it is might therefore be hard to differentiate from a long magic carpet ride.
Being prime minister? Of course he was born to the job! Hadn’t he been to Eton (he was the 22nd of the UK’s 55 prime ministers to attend that bastion of privilege)? Wasn’t he accepted into the Bullingdon Club at Oxford (“Buller! Buller! Buller!”)? And can’t he buff-up his speeches with Latin expressions beyond the ken of the plebs who vote for him?
But what if it looks as though the magic carpet is about to crash down to earth? Well, you just lie through your teeth, and say that it is “in fact” ascending. There is a high probability that the liar on the magic carpet may even believe his own lies.
Toffs in Ukania come in 3 varieties: (i) those poshly over-mannered with an ostentation bordering on self-parody, the exemplar here being Jacob Rees-Mogg; (ii) upper-class hooligans, who believe their privilege entitles them to a breezy loutishness denied the rest of the population, the exemplar here being BoJo; and (iii) a more routine version, which confines itself largely to the brandishing of the appropriate tribal badges– braying voices, wearing green wellington boots, the parading of a stock vocabulary in Bertie Woosterish clipped cadences (“oh I say”, “rather jolly, what?”, “well-played sir!”, “my dear boy”, and so on)– Brits use the term “Hooray Henry” to depict this particular manifestation of the toff. There are of course overlaps between (ii) and (iii).
These personae did not serve their Tory bearers well in the recent parliamentary debates on Brexit.
Rees-Mogg, now Leader of the House of Commons, opened the first day’s debate on a motion challenging BoJo’s request for the suspension of parliament, with opening remarks full of pompous sneers and taunts, and with clear insinuations that his opponents were only qualified, if at all, to be footmen in his household (or a maid in the case of women who tempered opposition to Brexit with exquisite manners and decorum).
When the vote came, 21 of these Brexit opponents were from R-M’s own party. One Tory rebel said afterwards that R-M had been the “best recruiting sergeant” for those opposed to Brexit!
Rees-Mogg then compounded his haughtiness by pretending to fall asleep, languorously, on the front bench while the televised debate was going on. The self-parodying R-M has always been fodder for the political cartoonists, but on this occasion he handed it to them on a plate, and was duly skewered (or “kebabbed”, as some multicultural Brits would say).
R-M had performed so disastrously that his scheduled place as the debate’s closer was taken over by BoJo, who did no better, albeit in his very different way.
With flailing arms BoJo launched into an incoherent tirade on this and that, and when he turned to his own frontbench during his rant to gauge their reaction, they refused to meet his eye and stared at the floor in front of them. Losers face a solitary existence in this cruel Tory world, as the soon to be wiped-out BoJo was discovering.
There were 2 votes the following day— one on extending the Brexit deadline beyond 31st October, the other prohibiting a No Deal Brexit— BoJo opposed both and lost both.
Again, the Brexiter cause was not helped by more disjointed bluster from a clearly rattled BoJo.
BoJo had requested the suspension of parliament so a general election could be called before the 31st October Brexit deadline.
BoJo then tabled a motion for an early general election, which was duly rejected. Labour insisted it would not back a snap election until a No Deal Brexit was set in law, so many of the party’s MPs, joined by the Scottish Nationalists, abstained from the vote, denying the BoJo the 434 votes he needed to get his motion through.
BoJo’s failure in the Commons can put down two factors.
Firstly, he showed in his two previous jobs (Mayor of London, foreign secretary) that attending to details is a task for minions. A top dog like him is simply there for photo ops and to make crummy jokes.
When speaking BoJo relies on pure extemporization, and his default mode is stream of consciousness.
Secondly, as implied, BoJo is not a good speaker. His standard setting is that of the two characters he invented for himself, that is, the clown or buffoon, or the ersatz Churchill, both of which may work in friendly settings where nothing he says will be probed deeply. But this won’t happen in a parliament where the opposition benches are crowded with capable people who want today to be your last day on the job.
One of BoJo’s major sources of income is after-dinner speaking– he charges £25,000/$30,000 to address wealthy Tory supporters who are three-sheets-to-the-wind from the fine vintages served, even as their mock-heroic clown rises to tickle their plump underbellies.
BoJo gets his energy from inhaling the fumy adoration of such audiences, where his feeble jokes and schoolboy insults are greeted with uproarious laughter, a state of affairs quite different from parliament, where the almost the guaranteed response will be groans and boos from the opposition, and silence from those on the Tory benches wondering if they will be reelected in the next general election with the jester BoJo as their party leader.
BoJo resumes action on Monday, where he is expected to resubmit his motion for an early election. Like the one before, this won’t have the requisite votes.
What the clown prince of Ukania does next is anybody’s guess.
Kenneth Surin is emeritus at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.